Book launch, 22 May: Gwen Jones, Chicago of the Balkans

The evening of Wednesday 22 May is the book launch for Gwen Jones’s Chicago of the Balkans: Budapest in Hungarian Literature 1900-1939 (Oxford: Legenda, 2013) at UCL-SSEES, co-hosted with the UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Gwen will be in conversation with Professor Ádám Nádasdy (ELTE) about the book and Budapest literature in general.

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Source: http://www.fortepan.hu/

The ‘Chicago of the Balkans’ of the title comes from an essay by Lajos Hatvany, ‘Magyar irodalom a külföld előtt’ [Hungarian Literature Through Foreign Eyes], published in Nyugat in 1910. Introducing an imaginary foreign reader to Hungarian history and culture, Hatvany writes:

Ez a szó: Magyarország — eleve és utólag valami korcsmában látott maszatos olajnyomat bizonytalan képzetét kelti. Sivár pusztai tájon tekintélyes nyáj legelész az ösztövér gémeskút körül, — a magyar költő ezt óriási szúnyoghoz hasonlítja, amely az öreg föld vérét szívja ki, kócos-lompos birkabőr-subákba burkolózott parasztok is állnak ott, nagy pipákból pöfékelők, — az egész kép megmártva vöröses alkonyi fényben. […] Magyarország 1867 óta kezdetleges földművelő népből magasabb rendűvé emelkedett, — a közgazdasági gyarapodás, haladás korszaka ez. Ez korszaka az ország európ… az amerikaiasodásának ideje. Budapest a Balkán Chicagójává lesz.

[This word — Hungary — summons up, in advance and subsequently, the uncertain idea of a greasy oil print seen in some tavern. A sizeable herd grazes on bleak plains around the lean shadoof, which the Hungarian poet compares to a huge mosquito sucking out the blood of the old land, while peasants wrapped in unkempt, shaggy sheepskin coats also stand there, puffing on great pipes, and the whole picture is steeped in a reddish twilight. […] Since 1867, Hungary has risen from a rudimentary agricultural people to a higher rank: this is the era of economic growth and progress. This era is the time of the country’s Europ… its Americanization. Budapest will become the Chicago of the Balkans.]

The ‘Chicago of the Balkans’ is not a reference to Al Capone and friends, or even the jazz era of the 1920s, but to Budapest’s rapid expansion and building boom in the last decades of the nineteenth century (for instance, outer Erzsébetváros in Pest was nicknamed ‘Csikágó’ in the 1890s), while most other parts of the country, not to mention the prevailing conservative mentality, in Hatvany’s eyes, remained provincial and backward.

The book spans both the late liberal Habsburg era Budapest, and post-liberal, post-Trianon Budapest, the capital of a much smaller and more homogenous country, and illustrates how discussions of the ‘Jewish Question’ became inseparable from political struggles for the capital city and its culture over a period of four decades. Works by writers from a wide variety of backgrounds are discussed, from Jewish satirists to icons of the radical Right, representatives of conservative national schools, and modernist, avant-garde and ‘peasantist’ authors.

Venue: UCL-SSEES, Masaryk Senior Common Room, 4th floor, 16 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW

Time: 6 pm

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